In the immediacy of its occurence Zen meditation is momentary immersion in what Whitehead calls experience in the mode of causal efficacy, a release into what he calls the withness of the body. As you meditate, you are breathed by the breathing. You discover that, if you can sit still, your mind is quieted along with your body. It is less frantic, less distracted, more attentive.
Make no mistake. Zen meditation does not put a stop to all mentation; there is still "thinking." In Whiteheadian terms, there are still conceptual prehensions. What Whitehead calls the mental pole of experience is still active to some degree. Indeed, when meditation is combined with koan practice (as in Rinzai tradition), mentation is further intensified. A person wrestles with the question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? or What did your face look like before your grandmother was born? There is an existential engagement.
Nevertheless, even in koan work, the "thinking" is on the surface of consciousness and the breathing is the deeper felt reality. Learning comes from the breathing itself: from body to mind and not simply from mind to body.
The benefits are significant. As practiced on a regular basis, Zen meditation opens up space for interior freedom, creativity, deep listening, and loving response in daily life. It is like a washing machine. It cleans out the mind of too much clutter, too much obsession. Moreover, if practiced in combination with faith in a cosmic Bodhisattva, meditation can help a person become still more open to divine guidance in a natural way, thus contributing to what Christians and others call a habit of discernment. The heart of this habit is responsiveness to the call of the moment, which process thinkers call "initial aims." Zen meditation can help a person become still more open, in a free and natural way, to these aims.
Whitehead speaks of the “withness of the body” as a fundamental dimension of human life and observes that our bodies are the immediate environment of our lives. As children we learn about this withness in joyful ways; and as adults, in disease at death, we may suffer from this withness. But the withness is with us.
The withness of our body is experience in the mode of causal efficacy: that is, experience in the mode of being causally influenced, in a very direct way, by the beauty, glory, and sometimes pain of our bodies. This is why it is so important to have healthy relations with our bodies. Of course, we want healthy bodies, too. But even if our bodies are not healthy, we can be related to them in healthy ways. Spiritualty includes this healthy relation. We dwell with the Spirit of creation by listening, not only to the world around us, but to the worlds within us: our breathing, our tensions, our pleasures, and movement itself. Dancing is one of the most important forms of withness. It is the joy of the mudra, the piano playing, the gesture, the finger picking on a guitar, the tapping of a foot, the waving to a friend, the folding of the hands in prayer, the bowing to another. These are healthy forms of withness. In the house of withness there are many mansions.
The wisdom of Asian traditions is that they have taken the withness of the body as a companion in spiritual pilgrimage. The New Testament of Christianity lends support to this perspective when it speaks of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. How can we enjoy and benefit from this temple?
Zen Buddhism offers one way. It invites us to find our way into the sacrament of the present moment, by taking a Sabbath from compulsive busyness, and resting in our breathing. As this occurs, we enter into a certain kind of silence which is not empty of life but is instead a deep listening: a relaxed yet attentive awareness of what is happening in the here-and-now. And as this occurs, in a gradual way, the chatterings of our chatterbox minds, while not ceasing, become less enslaving. Our minds may roam far away, but with our bodies we stay “here” where our breathing is.
In a technical way, Whitehead’s philosophy illuminates what is happening. The mental pole of our immediate experience – the “conceptual prehensions,” to use Whitehead’s language – begins to subside. The chatterings within our mind begin to subside just a little, or at least to have less sway in our imaginations. They are “there,” but we are for the moment centered in our breathing, not the chatterings. We begin to listen more.
Is there anything "religious" in the listening? It depends on who is sitting. Some people meditate for stress reduction alone; some to become more centered in their daily lives; some, if they are Buddhists, as a companion to a pilgrimage toward enlightenment; and some, if they are theistic, as an adjunct to prayer.
What is the connection between meditation and God? Of course, "God" is not really a Zen word. Zen is non-theistic in most of its expressions. Nevertheless, trust in God and meditation can go together. God is a Deep Listening within and beyond the universe.
In undertaking a practice of meditation, Christians and Jews and Muslims, Bhakti Hindus and Pure Land Buddhists can trust that, with this gradual entrance into a listening mode, there emerges a capacity to listen to something just as deep if not deeper than our breathing: the quiet promptings of a divine love within the heart of creation. In Whiteheadian philosophy this love takes the form of initial aims relative to the moment: quiet callings to love others, to seek wisdom, to be open to fresh possibilities. In the language of Buddhism, we hear the call of a divine impulse within us, the call to become bodhisattvas.
This indwelling spirit -- this silent calling -- is not static. The New Testament compares it to wind. It is flowing and freeing. Some process theologians speak of it as Bod's Breathing. This Breathing is a comfort and a calling. As a calling it beckons us into the future even as it enables us to relax into the present. The more open we are to the Breathing, the better we can laugh and cry, listen and love, responding to the situations around us, within us, past and present and future.
Please understand: the Breathing is not a call to be obsessed about the future. In the hurriedness of our time, it is often a call to be here and now, in the present, in a relaxed and attentive way, so that we can hear the whisper of the Deep Listener. The Christian tradition speaks of our capacity to hear this calling as discernment, and it speaks of our capacity to hear it in a natural and unpretentious way as the habit of discernment.
Zen meditation can help some people grow in their capacities for discernment, even as it also helps them grow in their capacities for being kind and patient, empathic and open, to their own hearts and the hearts of others. In combination with faith and community, service to others and normal engagements with life, it can be a “daily practice” which enriches a life.
How to do Zazen on a Chair
Choose a chair with a cushion. Never use revolving chairs and those with armrests.
Make your environment comfortable and remember that the goal is not to stimulate your five senses.
Relax your body and plant your feet flat on the ground. You must also maintain proper posture and stabilize your lower body.
Sit in the front half of the chair and do not lean back.
Once seated, take deep breaths until you feel relaxed.
Put your left hand on top of the right hand with the tips of your thumbs together and place them on your lap.
Breathe out a few times and slowly sway side to side while maintaining a straight posture. Imagine you are following a horizontal line.
While swaying, keep your eyes open and just look at the wall in front of you.
Meditate as above: count your breaths, follow your breathing.
After meditating, do not stand abruptly. Go back to swaying to get back to the feeling of you being on a chair and stay still for a while before leaving the Zazen posture.
Not-Knowing in Zen
Gil Fronsdal, February 10th, 2004
Reposted from Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California Click here for original post.
Buddhist practice involves an interplay between knowing and not-knowing. In Vipassana we often emphasize knowing and seeing deeply into our lived experience. However, just as our capacity to know can be developed, so can we cultivate a wise practice of not-knowing.
“Not-knowing” is emphasized in Zen practice, where it is sometimes called “beginner’s mind.” An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.
I can recall many situations in my life where preconceived ideas obscured my seeing clearly. Once, working as a restaurant cook, I was leaving my shift just as a co-worker started his. When I began joking with him as usual, he quickly interrupted me to say that one of his best friends had just died. If I had practiced beginner’s mind, I would have taken the time to discover who he was at that moment. Instead, I felt regret for being insensitive.
I once attended a weekend “Death and Dying” workshop with Stephen Levine. When the workshop started I was stunned by the amount of suffering in the room. Some were dying. Others had recently lost a child, a partner, or a parent. Some had witnessed tragic deaths. One had nearly died herself. The weekend taught me to not to assume I know people from my first impressions. Now I try to remember that they have depths that I might not know about.
This experience points out another kind of not-knowing as well. How would you live your life if you had a clear sense of the uncertainty of the time and place of death-your own and others’? Most people don’t know when death will come. We often live as if we were certain about things that are inherently uncertain. How would we live if we acknowledged our uncertainty?
What is it like to be aware that we don’t know the answers to some of the life’s big questions? People often ask Buddhist teachers about what happens when we die, or the meaning of life. I have been inspired by those who answer that they don’t know, and seem very comfortable with not-knowing. Perhaps these questions are irrelevant to their spiritual life.
Often people are anxious to find the ultimate meaning of life or understand what happens in death because they are afraid of the unknown. They may look to religion for answers. Buddhism, at its heart, is not about answering these questions but about resolving the fear that motivates the questions. Rather than providing security through religious knowing, Buddhist practice calls on us to become free from attachment to security, free from the need to know.
A simple but profound way to practice not-knowing is to add “I don’t know” to every thought. This is most effective in meditation when the mind has quieted down. So, for example, if the judgment arises, “This is a good meditation session” or “this is a bad meditation session,” respond with “I don’t know.” Follow the thought “I can’t manage this,” “I need…,” or “I am…” with “I don’t know.” Like the bumper sticker that says “Question authority,” the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think. Repeating the words “I don’t know” allows us to question tightly-held ideas. Done thoroughly, “I don’t know” can pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs. All too often we don’t question our beliefs. And, since virtually every train of thought has some implicit belief, when we question our thoughts, we question these beliefs. “Don’t know” can also be directed at motivations that lead us to act. Before adjusting your posture in meditation or quitting walking meditation early, notice what belief is operating in the motivation. Then direct “don’t know” to that belief and see what happens.
When I was kitchen manager in a monastery, I saw how much I was driven by the need to be liked. The way I talked and behaved with the crew was often influenced by this desire. To ensure that what I did or said did not trigger their reactivity and dislike, I felt I had to tiptoe around their (and my) egos. But during that year I began to question my need to be liked. Upon what authority was I basing this need? Did I really know if it was important to have people like me? Don’t know.
Don’t know. Don’t know. Repeated regularly, it almost becomes a mantra in response to what we think or believe. This phrase can open up a space in the mind, helping it to relax and rest. The little phrase, “I don’t know,” is very, very powerful. One Zen story proclaims, “Not knowing is most intimate.” I understand this to mean that what is most essential is not understood through the filter of our judgments, past knowledge, or memories. When not-knowing helps these to drop away, the result can be a greater immediacy-what some might call being intimate. The practice of not-knowing needs to be distinguished from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not a virtue: the confused person is somewhat lost and removed from life. With doubt, the mind is agitated or contracted with hesitation and indecision. These mind states tend to obscure rather than clarify. Furthermore, confusion and doubt are generally involuntary. Not-knowing, as a practice, is a choice meant to bring greater peace.
But lest we take the not-knowing practice too far, Suzuki Roshi said, “Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know.” It doesn’t require us to forget everything we have known or to suspend all interpretations of a situation. Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not. As a Buddhist practice, not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate freedom, then-not knowing has served its ultimate purpose.
Open and Relational Not-Knowing
As a Christian influenced by Buddhism, I think it is very important to not-know God in the Zen sense, even as we might also know God in an open and relational way. Not-knowing and knowing are complementary, but for those of us inclined to live in our heads, or to be overly confident and overly argumentative, a good dose of not-knowning is very important if we are to let the freshness of God's breathing find its way into our hearts. Through not-knowing we can better listen to other people in empathic ways, letting them present themselves without our preconceptions; and we can be more open to the open future. This does not mean that we forget everything we know, but it does mean that we are not constrained by what we know. As Gil Fronsdal puts it above:
Not-knowing doesn’t require us to forget everything we have known or to suspend all interpretations of a situation. Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. "Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not."
Understood in this way, not-knowing is more than epistemic humility. It is an existential, intuitive trait of consciousness that carries with it the wisdom of uncertainty. This wisdom is not debilitating confusion, it is a qualitative openness to the world and, I believe, to God. It is. or can be part of the "openness" of open and relational theology.
Imagine that God is a deep Listening at the heart of the universe. Not-knowing is listening with the Listening, thus letting the world present itself, without knowing in advance what we will hear. It joins God in the wisdom of love, which always includes and requires the wisdom of uncertainty.